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Keeda Haynes Brings Something Different to the Public Defender’s Office — Five Years Spent in Prison

Keeda Haynes had spent a few nights in Alderson, W. Va., when it really hit her.

“I am in fucking federal prison.”

Just weeks earlier, in December 2002, she had graduated from Tennessee State University, where she’d studied criminal justice and psychology. She’d hardly taken off her cap and gown before she was in a car with her parents making the 450-mile drive from Nashville to Alderson, through mountains and snow. They’d dropped her off with her glasses and her Bible to start serving her sentence.

In the federal system, prison terms are measured in months, which can obscure the amount of time they really represent — the same way describing a child as “22 months old” can shield parents from the reality that they nearly have a 2-year-old. When Haynes was standing in a Nashville courtroom listening as a federal judge sentenced her to 84 months in prison, the surreal nature of the moment made the math fuzzy. The fact that she was being sent away for seven years would take some time to land with full force.

“It was just so unreal, like it was happening to somebody else,” Haynes says. “You never in a million years think that this is something that would be happening to you.”

But it was happening to her. And that fact would begin to close in on her as she and her parents drove through the gates of the Federal Prison Camp, Alderson in the small hours of the winter morning; as she sat in a holding room with two other women, one of them sobbing, as they waited around five hours for the intake staff to arrive for the day; and as she was given a khaki uniform and a number — 00017011 — that she easily recites by heart to this day.

Almost 163 months — or 14 years — later, Haynes is sitting in her office on the 20th floor of the austere downtown tower that houses the Metro Public Defender’s Office. She occasionally glances over at her computer screen with a click of the mouse or two, as she talks through a story that clearly still lives just beneath her skin. On her desk are five or six stacks of paper, each one likely representing a life or lives that are now intersecting with a criminal justice system that consumes more bodies than any such system in any other nation on earth.

Keeda Haynes knows all about that, and it’s a good thing, too — she’s their lawyer.

The way this story about Keeda Haynes ends is remarkable: a Nashville woman, caught up in a drug conspiracy, ensnared by mandatory minimum sentences, leaves prison and pursues a law career defending the people at the bottom of society in danger of being swallowed up by an unfeeling system. But the thing that stands out about how the story begins is how unremarkable it is, and how it shows — at least in her telling — the way an ordinary person, with a family and goals and potential, can be slowly pulled into that system.

As Haynes remembers it, she first met Myron Armstrong one night in downtown Nashville. She was around 19 and out to celebrate her older sister’s birthday, when a car pulled over. Armstrong hopped out and started talking to her. He lived in Memphis, but the two exchanged numbers and entered a long-distance relationship. They didn’t text — this was the bitter end of the ’90s, and that technology wasn’t yet ubiquitous — but they spoke on the phone and occasionally traveled to see each other. His middle name was Seymour, but everyone called him “See.”

Haynes had grown up in Franklin, raised by blue-collar parents, with an older sister and three younger brothers. She’d followed her sister to Tennessee State University with a plan to major in psychology and pursue a career as a criminal psychologist — she had always been taken by Jodie Foster’s character in Silence of the Lambs and wanted to study serial killers. But she changed her mind after taking a Legal Methods course with Larry Woods, a professor she credits with encouraging her after she discovered she had a knack for writing legal briefs. He tried to get her to go to Harvard University or Yale University for law school. She wanted to go to the University of Florida.

Then she met See.

After their initial fling, they lost touch. But eventually they reconnected and began talking on the phone again, most mornings and evenings. At some point, Haynes says, he told her that he and some friends and cousins had a business selling cellphones and pagers. He asked if she’d be willing to help. Packages would be coming to Nashville through FedEx, and someone would need to accept them.

“I guess it sounds legit,” she recalls now, the benefit of hindsight audible in her voice. “I don’t know how businesses work at 19, 20 years old.”

She agreed. The packages would come to her, at home or at work, and she’d sign for them. One of Armstrong’s cousins would come pick them up soon after and pay her $50 for her trouble.

She says she didn’t think anything of it. But she would soon have reason to think everything might not be on the up-and-up.

Haynes says one of her friends agreed to accept some packages to make some money. But when one package arrived, her friend’s mother opened it to find marijuana inside and called the police.

After that incident, Haynes says she initially rebuffed See’s offer to resume their arrangement. He said his cousin had gone rogue and tried to sneak the marijuana through. But eventually, after speaking to his cousin and hearing his assurances that it was a one-time foolish mistake on his part, Haynes agreed to start accepting packages again.

Soon after that, she took a job at the sheriff’s department writing parking tickets, and because of her new schedule, she asked her sister to pick up packages for her. On one occasion, that meant going to FedEx — and springing a legal trap. Apparently knowing the package contained marijuana, law enforcement had allowed Haynes’ sister to accept it. But as soon as she dropped it in her trunk and shut the door, according to Haynes, her sister found herself surrounded by police with guns drawn. (Prosecutors would later allege that Haynes had recruited her friend and sister to take part in the conspiracy.)

There was another phone call from See and more explanations. But the two soon broke up.

It wasn’t long after that when Haynes noticed she was being followed by law enforcement. Asked how she knew, she almost laughs. It wasn’t subtle, she says. She’d routinely walk out of her house and see officers sitting in their car down the street. But she still never thought she’d be making that drive to Alderson.

“I’m thinking that it’s going to go away because I am not guilty,” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, well, I’m going to comply and do what they want me to do, and they’re going to see that I’m not guilty, and this is going to go away and I’m going to carry on with my life.’ ”

The investigation that followed was particularly aggressive. Aside from the noticeable surveillance, Haynes’ friends were subpoenaed, and her grandmother — then in her 80s — was asked to give handwriting samples and, according to Haynes, was even visited by federal prosecutors and agents in the hospital after she had surgery to remove colon cancer.

At one point, having decided that she probably would need legal representation, Haynes went to the offices of Glenn Funk, who is now Davidson County’s district attorney but was then a defense attorney in private practice. Ultimately, Funk couldn’t represent her — another individual implicated in the case was being represented by his firm and was already cooperating, presenting a conflict of interest — but Haynes says Funk recommended that she go see Peter Strianse, a former federal prosecutor who had switched to the defense side of the bar. The only trouble was that the federal prosecutor and accompanying federal agents had followed Haynes to Funk’s office. As a second assist, Haynes says Funk ushered her out a side door so she could hustle over to Strianse’s office on Deaderick Street. Meanwhile, she says, he waited a few beats before going out to the lobby to tell the feds she had left.

They followed her there too, though, and eventually Strianse asked them to leave the building. He tells the Scene he can still picture them waiting outside while he spoke to Haynes in a conference room, an experience he says was “extremely, extremely unusual.”

The case would hang over Haynes for around two years before word got to her family that a grand jury had issued an indictment. Haynes says a heavily armed SWAT team showed up at her parents’ house looking for her, but found only her mother and grandmother. Haynes was at her job at the mall. She would turn herself in that evening, but even then, she says, she did not have a sense of the enormous storm overhead — a night in the Williamson County jail, she thought, and home in the morning to figure out the rest. Instead, she was about to learn about the criminal justice system in ways she never could in the classroom.

Haynes spent three nights in jail before the feds came to pick her up and bring her to Nashville. Thanks in part to a prosecutor who was apparently keen on keeping her detained as much as possible, she was then transported to the Warren County jail in Kentucky, where she was held for about a week.

Through it all, Haynes maintained her innocence. But she would very quickly become one of the only ones. As a trial approached and the story made local news, Haynes was still in school at TSU. And Haynes says that as the list of people who had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the government grew, she lost friends who decided they no longer wanted to be questioned about their association with her. Prosecutors offered her a deal at one point, she says — a guilty plea in exchange for a 60-month sentence, the mandatory minimum. She didn’t take it.

“She knew she could not stand a felony conviction if she wanted to achieve her goal of being a professional and practicing law,” says Strianse, recalling his client’s insistence on going to trial.

In the end, Haynes was one of only two defendants who went to trial, out of 35 who had been scooped up by the two-year federal investigation.

On May 7, 2002, after a six-day trial during which — as Strianse recalls it — “all the big fish” in the conspiracy testified against her, a jury acquitted Haynes of multiple charges, including conspiracy to distribute marijuana. But they convicted her of aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy to distribute marijuana by accepting more than 50 packages with marijuana in them.

“I remember the look on some of the jurors’ faces,” Strianse says. “They really thought that they’d done us a good turn. They didn’t realize that under the federal sentencing guidelines they might as well have just convicted her of everything.”

Four months later, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger sentenced Haynes to 84 months in federal prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sunny Koshy explained to The Tennessean at the time that Haynes would serve as much time as if she’d been dealing the marijuana herself, because she had a pivotal role in the conspiracy.

“If she wasn’t receiving the packages, that stuff wouldn’t be getting out on the streets,” he told the paper after the sentence was handed down. According to Koshy, about a ton of marijuana was shipped to Tennessee in a two-year period, and more than $1 million in proceeds from the sale of the drugs had been wired to California.

At her sentencing hearing, Haynes had again asserted her innocence, but according to the same Tennessean article, Trauger had told her the evidence against her was simply overwhelming.

The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment for this story except to note the record: that a jury, the district court and an appellate court all confirmed the conviction and that throughout the case, there were no allegations made that the investigation had been handled improperly.

“Not to say it wasn’t horrible, but it definitely wasn’t CJC-horrible.”

Haynes is describing Alderson, a minimum-security federal facility, as opposed to the Criminal Justice Center, Nashville’s downtown jail where many clients of the Metro Public Defender’s Office are detained. Unlike the CJC, where cold temperatures combine with pungent odor, and orange-clad inmates are “stripped” of their dignity, Haynes says Alderson is more habitable, with dorms and activities for inmates. Work is required, but you get to shower on your own. Still, you’re captive.

“At the end of the day, you’re still in jail,” she says. “You still can’t leave. You still have to do what someone else tells you to do. You still have to answer to a number.”

Haynes, whose stint overlapped with one of Alderson’s most famous inmates, Martha Stewart, spent much of her time studying for the LSAT, still intent on pursuing a law degree when she got out. Her parents would visit about twice a year.

Meanwhile, Strianse was appealing her conviction. That pursuit would lead the case all the way to the U.S.

Supreme Court, which granted the appeal and remanded the case back for resentencing. Haynes’ first trips on an airplane were those she took from West Virginia to Oklahoma and then to Memphis, handcuffed and shackled along with some 100 other inmates, on her way back to Nashville for the court hearing, where she would appear in front of Trauger once again.

Haynes says the judge told her that she’d probably gotten all she was going to get out of serving a prison term, but that the mandatory minimum meant the judge had to resentence her to 60 months. That meant Haynes would have to serve around 18 more months. Her case would be on appeal until nearly the day she walked off the Alderson campus, with her final appeal being denied two months before her release. In all, she ended up serving nearly five years in prison.

When she was released, she was offered a Greyhound bus ticket, but her parents bought her a plane ticket. She flew home, this time without the chains.

For Haynes, her whole adult life has given her a largely unvarnished view of the criminal justice system, from the bed of a federal prison to the public defender’s office — the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a lawyer personified. And some who have had a clear view of her through it all say the effect of her first experience on the second one is clear.

“I’ve seen her in action in the public defender’s office, and she is just an excellent lawyer — tenacious, cares about the people she represents,” says Strianse. “She knows what it’s like to be incarcerated, to feel helpless and have to rely on a lawyer. That gives her an empathy that most lawyers just don’t have, because they’ve not gone through that experience.”

When Haynes was released, Strianse hired her to do paralegal work in his office. He recalls watching her as she’d work all day and at night take classes at the Nashville School of Law, in the face of uncertainty about whether she’d even be granted a law license at all.

After she passed the bar, Haynes was required to appear for a show cause hearing, where the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners would determine whether she should be granted a license despite her criminal record. They quickly decided the answer was yes.

Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner was there. By then, Haynes had applied for a job with the office, and Deaner hoped to hire her, which she eventually did. It’s all too easy for people working in the system to stop seeing people and start seeing another drug charge or another felon. But Haynes, Deaner says, sees the individual and is constantly making sure that the office is becoming more involved in working for systemic reform.

Asked whether she believed in Haynes’ innocence when she met her, or whether she even cared, Deaner pauses before joking about her inability to answer such questions without complete candor.

“As a public defender, I generally don’t care if my clients are guilty or not guilty,” she says. “Because if they’re guilty, to me they’re still a person, an individual, and this is one event that happened in their lives, and I think there are explanations for that. So in the end, for me, I didn’t particularly care. I have witnessed individuals go through the criminal justice system, have a trial and get convicted who I believed were innocent. So while I understand the system — yes, she was convicted — but for me, I think even if she had pled guilty, it shapes the person who she is today, but it doesn’t define the person who she is today.”

Haynes knows the presumption of guilt aimed at so many who are pulled into the criminal justice system, and she says it helps her connect with the people who end up on the other side of her desk.

“When I have clients tell me that they didn’t do it or they didn’t know something, while it may be hard for some people to believe, I can believe that,” she says.

But to Haynes, who she is today is defined just as much by what she does outside the office as the work she does inside it. She works in prisons through the prison ministry at her church, Mt. Zion Baptist. She has returned to the halfway house where she was a resident to speak to the people there about how to transition back into the community and navigate the indignities that follow the convicted out of prison, from disenfranchisement to difficulty finding work.

She also, on occasion, speaks to people who are about to serve their own sentences in prison, in an attempt to prepare them, although she concedes that’s nearly impossible. Her main piece of advice in those situations, she says, is to use one’s time to work toward being a better person on the other side — a goal she sadly believes our criminal justice system actively works against.

“You are in a system that is designed to break you,” she says. “The criminal justice system does not rehabilitate you. It is not going to encourage you. It is not going to build you up. It is not going to help you be a better person. It’s not. So above all, you have to stay positive, and you have to know that this is going to end.”

If there’s truth to that, there’s also irony in it — it means Keeda Haynes is spending her life fighting the system in more ways than one.

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